Conjunctions

 

Definition

A conjunction is a joiner, a word that connects (conjoins) parts of a sentence.

 

Coordinating Conjunctions

The simple, little conjunctions are called coordinating conjunctions: and, but, or, yet, for, nor, so

(It may help you remember these conjunctions by recalling that they all have fewer than four letters. Also, remember the acronym FANBOYS: For-And-Nor-But-Or-Yet-So. Be careful of the words then and now; neither is a coordinating conjunction, so what we say about coordinating conjunctions' roles in a sentence and punctuation does not apply to those two words.)

 

When a coordinating conjunction connects two independent clauses, it is often (but not always) accompanied by a comma:

 

Ned wants to play for the University of Toronto, but he has had trouble meeting the academic requirements.

 

When the two independent clauses connected by a coordinating conjunction are nicely balanced or brief, many writers will omit the comma:

 

Ned has a great jump shot but he isn't quick on his feet.

 

The comma is always correct when used to separate two independent clauses connected by a coordinating conjunction.

A comma is also correct when and is used to attach the last item of a serial list, although many writers (especially in newspapers) will omit that final comma:

 

Ned spent his summer studying basic math, writing, and reading comprehension.

 

When a coordinating conjunction is used to connect all the elements in a series, a comma is not used:

 

Presbyterians and Methodists and Baptists are the prevalent Protestant congregations in Oklahoma.

 

A comma is also used with but when expressing a contrast:

 

This is a useful rule, but difficult to remember.

 

In most of their other roles as joiners (other than joining independent clauses, that is), coordinating conjunctions can join two sentence elements without the help of a comma.

 

Hemingway and Fitzgerald are among the American expatriates of the between-the-wars era.

 

Hemingway was renowned for his clear style and his insights into American notions of male identity.

 

It is hard to say whether Hemingway or Fitzgerald is the more interesting cultural icon of his day.

 

Although Hemingway is sometimes disparaged for his unpleasant portrayal of women and for his glorification of machismo, we nonetheless find some sympathetic, even heroic, female figures in his novels and short stories.

 

 

Beginning a Sentence with And or But

A frequently asked question about conjunctions is whether and or but can be used at the beginning of a sentence. This is what R.W. Burchfield has to say about this use of and:

There is a persistent belief that it is improper to begin a sentence with And, but this prohibition has been cheerfully ignored by standard authors from Anglo-Saxon times onwards. An initial And is a useful aid to writers as the narrative continues.

-from The New Fowler's Modern English Usage

The same is true with the conjunction but. A sentence beginning with and or but will tend to draw attention to itself and its transitional function. Writers should examine such sentences with two questions in mind: (1) would the sentence and paragraph function just as well without the initial conjunction? (2) should the sentence in question be connected to the previous sentence? If the initial conjunction still seems appropriate, use it.

 

Among the coordinating conjunctions, the most common, of course, are and, but, and or.

 

AND

To suggest that one idea is chronologically sequential to another: "Lydia sent in her applications and waited by the phone for a response."

To suggest that one idea is the result of another: "Willie heard the weather report and promptly boarded up his house."

To suggest that one idea is in contrast to another (frequently replaced by but in this usage): "Juanita is brilliant and Delia has a pleasant personality.

To suggest an element of surprise (sometimes replaced by yet in this usage): "Hartford is a rich city and suffers from many symptoms of urban blight."

To suggest that one clause is dependent upon another, conditionally (usually the first clause is an imperative): "Use your credit cards frequently and you'll soon find yourself deep in debt."

To suggest a kind of "comment" on the first clause: "Charlie became addicted to gambling and that surprised no one who knew him."

 

BUT

To suggest a contrast that is unexpected in light of the first clause: "Joey lost a fortune in the stock market, but he still seems able to live quite comfortably."

To suggest in an affirmative sense what the first part of the sentence implied in a negative way (sometimes replaced by on the contrary): "The club never invested foolishly, but used the services of a sage investment counsellor."

To connect two ideas with the meaning of "with the exception of" (and then the second word takes over as subject): "Everybody but David is trying out for the team."

 

OR

To suggest that only one possibility can be realized, excluding one or the other: "You can study hard for this exam or you can fail."

To suggest the inclusive combination of alternatives: "We can broil chicken on the grill tonight, or we can just eat leftovers.

To suggest a refinement of the first clause: "Smith College is the premier all-women's college in the country, or so it seems to most Smith College alumnae."

To suggest a restatement or "correction" of the first part of the sentence: "There are no rattlesnakes in this canyon, or so our guide tells us."

To suggest a negative condition: "The New Hampshire state motto is the rather grim "Live free or die."

To suggest a negative alternative without the use of an imperative: "They must approve his political style or they wouldn't keep electing him mayor."

 

The Others . . .

The conjunction NOR is not extinct, but it is not used nearly as often as the other conjunctions, so it might feel a bit odd when nor does come up in conversation or writing. Its most common use is as the little brother in the correlative pair, neither-nor:

He is neither sane nor brilliant.

That is neither what I said nor what I meant.

Nor can be used with other negative expressions:

That is not what I meant to say, nor should you interpret my statement as an admission of guilt.

It is possible to use nor without a preceding negative element, but it is unusual and, to an extent, rather stuffy:

George's handshake is as good as any written contract, nor has he ever proven untrustworthy.

 

The word YET functions sometimes as an adverb and has several meanings: in addition ("yet another cause of trouble" or "a simple yet noble woman"), even ("yet more expensive"), still ("he is yet a novice"), eventually ("they may yet win"), and so soon as now ("he's not here yet"). It also functions as a coordinating conjunction meaning something like "nevertheless" or "but." The word yet seems to carry an element of distinctiveness that but can seldom register.

John plays basketball well, yet his favourite sport is badminton.

The visitors complained loudly about the heat, yet they continued to play golf every day.

In sentences such as the second one, above, the pronoun subject of the second clause ("they," in this case) is often left out. When that happens, the comma preceding the conjunction might also disappear: "The visitors complained loudly yet continued to play golf every day."

Yet is sometimes combined with other conjunctions, but or and. It would not be unusual to see and yet in sentences like the ones above. This usage is acceptable.

 

The word FOR is most often used as a preposition, of course, but it does serve, on rare occasions, as a coordinating conjunction. Some people regard the conjunction for as rather highfalutin and literary, and it does tend to add a bit of weightiness to the text. Beginning a sentence with the conjunction "for" is probably not a good idea, except when you're singing "For he's a jolly good fellow. "For" has serious sequential implications and in its use the order of thoughts is more important than it is, say, with because or since. Its function is to introduce the reason for the preceding clause:

John thought he had a good chance to get the job, for his father was on the company's board of trustees.

Most of the visitors were happy just sitting around in the shade, for it had been a long, dusty journey on the train.

 


Be careful of the conjunction SO. Sometimes it can connect two independent clauses along with a comma, but sometimes it can't. For instance, in this sentence,

Robert is not the only Olympic athlete in his family, so are his brother, sister, and his Uncle Chet.

where the word so means "as well" or "in addition," most careful writers would use a semicolon between the two independent clauses. In the following sentence, where so is acting like a minor-league "therefore," the conjunction and the comma are adequate to the task:

Robert has always been nervous in large gatherings, so it is no surprise that he avoids crowds of his adoring fans.

Sometimes, at the beginning of a sentence, so will act as a kind of summing up device or transition, and when it does, it is often set off from the rest of the sentence with a comma:

So, the sheriff peremptorily removed the child from the custody of his parents.

 

The Case of Then and Than

In some parts of the United States, we are told, then and than not only look alike, they sound alike. Like a teacher with twins in her classroom, you need to be able to distinguish between these two words; otherwise, they'll become mischievous. They are often used and they should be used for the right purposes.

Than is used to make comparisons. In the sentence "Piggy would rather be rescued then stay on the island," we have employed the wrong word because a comparison is being
Than & Thenmade between Piggy's two choices; we need than instead. In the sentence, "Other than Pincher Martin, Golding did not write another popular novel," the adverbial construction "other than" helps us make an implied comparison; this usage is perfectly acceptable in the United States but careful writers in the UK try to avoid it (Burchfield).

 

Generally, the only question about than arises when we have to decide whether the word is being used as a conjunction or as a preposition. If it's a preposition, then the word that follows it should be in the object form.

He's taller and somewhat more handsome than me.

Just because you look like him doesn't mean you can play better than him.

Most careful writers, however, will insist that than be used as a conjunction; it's as if part of the clause introduced by than has been left out:

He's taller and somewhat more handsome than I [am handsome].

You can play better than he [can play].

In formal, academic text, you should probably use than as a conjunction and follow it with the subject form of a pronoun (where a pronoun is appropriate).

Then is a conjunction, but it is not one of the little conjunctions listed at the top of this page. We can use the FANBOYS conjunctions to connect two independent clauses; usually, they will be accompanied (preceded) by a comma. Too many students think that then works the same way: "Caesar invaded Gaul, then he turned his attention to England." You can tell the difference between then and a coordinating conjunction by trying to move the word around in the sentence. We can write "he then turned his attention to England"; "he turned his attention, then, to England"; he turned his attention to England then." The word can move around within the clause. Try that with a conjunction, and you will quickly see that the conjunction cannot move around. "Caesar invaded Gaul, and then he turned his attention to England." The word and is stuck exactly there and cannot move like then, which is more like an adverbial conjunction (or conjunctive adverb see below) than a coordinating conjunction. Our original sentence in this paragraph "Caesar invaded Gaul, then he turned his attention to England" is a comma splice, a faulty sentence construction in which a comma tries to hold together two independent clauses all by itself: the comma needs a coordinating conjunction to help out, and the word then simply doesn't work that way.

 

Subordinating Conjunctions

A Subordinating Conjunction (sometimes called a dependent word or subordinator) comes at the beginning of a Subordinate (or Dependent) Clause and establishes the relationship between the dependent clause and the rest of the sentence. It also turns the clause into something that depends on the rest of the sentence for its meaning.

 

He took to the stage as though he had been preparing for this moment all his life.

Because he loved acting, he refused to give up his dream of being in the movies.

Unless we act now, all is lost.

 

Notice that some of the subordinating conjunctions in the table below after, before, since are also prepositions, but as subordinators they are being used to introduce a clause and to subordinate the following clause to the independent element in the sentence.

 

Common Subordinating Conjunctions

after
although
as
as if
as long as
as though
because
before
even if
even though

if
if only
in order that
now that
once
rather than
since
so that
than
that

though
till
unless
until
when
whenever
where
whereas
wherever
while

 


 

The Case of Like and As

Strictly speaking, the word like is a preposition, not a conjunction. It can, therefore, be used to introduce a prepositional phrase ("My brother is tall like my father"), but it should not be used to introduce a clause ("My brother can't play the piano like as he did before the accident" or "It looks like as if basketball is quickly overtaking baseball as America's national sport."). To introduce a clause, it's a good idea to use as, as though, or as if, instead.

Like As I told you earlier, the lecture has been postponed.

It looks like as if it's going to snow this afternoon.

Johnson kept looking out the window like as though he had someone waiting for him.

In formal, academic text, it's a good idea to reserve the use of like for situations in which similarities are being pointed out:

This community college is like a two-year liberal arts college.

However, when you are listing things that have similarities, such as is probably more suitable:

Johnny has several highly regarded neighbours, like such as Mark, Francis, Jane, and Seymour.

 

Omitting That

The word that is used as a conjunction to connect a subordinate clause to a preceding verb. In this construction that is sometimes called the "expletive that." Indeed, the word is often omitted to good effect, but the very fact of easy omission causes some editors to take out the red pen and strike out the conjunction that wherever it appears. In the following sentences, we can happily omit the that (or keep it, depending on how the sentence sounds to us):

Isabel knew [that] she was about to be fired.

She definitely felt [that] her fellow employees hadn't supported her.

I hope [that] she doesn't blame me.

Sometimes omitting the that creates a break in the flow of a sentence, a break that can be adequately bridged with the use of a comma:

The problem is, that production in her department has dropped.

Remember, that we didn't have these problems before she started working here.

As a general rule, if the sentence feels just as good without the that, if no ambiguity results from its omission, if the sentence is more efficient or elegant without it, then we can safely omit the that. Theodore Bernstein lists three conditions in which we should maintain the conjunction that:

          When a time element intervenes between the verb and the clause: "The boss said yesterday that production in this department was down fifty percent." (Notice the position of "yesterday.")

          When the verb of the clause is long delayed: "Our annual report revealed that some losses sustained by this department in the third quarter of last year were worse than previously thought." (Notice the distance between the subject "losses" and its verb, "were.")

  • When a second that can clear up who said or did what: "The CEO said that Isabel's department was slacking off and that production dropped precipitously in the fourth quarter." (Did the CEO say that production dropped or was the drop a result of what he said about Isabel's department? The second that makes the sentence clear.)

 

Beginning a Sentence with Because

Somehow, the notion that one should not begin a sentence with the subordinating conjunction because retains a mysterious grip on people's sense of writing proprieties. This might come about because a sentence that begins with because could well end up a fragment if one is not careful to follow up the "because clause" with an independent clause.

Because e-mail now plays such a huge role in our communications industry.

When the "because clause" is properly subordinated to another idea (regardless of the position of the clause in the sentence), there is absolutely nothing wrong with it:

Because e-mail now plays such a huge role in our communications industry, the postal service would very much like to see it taxed in some manner.

 

Correlative Conjunctions

Some conjunctions combine with other words to form what are called correlative conjunctions. They always travel in pairs, joining various sentence elements that should be treated as grammatically equal.

She led the team not only in statistics but also by virtue of her enthusiasm.

Polonius said, "Neither a borrower nor a lender be."

Whether you win this race or lose it doesn't matter as long as you do your best.

 

Here is a brief list of common correlative conjunctions.

 

both . . . and
not only . . . but also
not . . . but
either . . . or

neither . . . nor
whether . . . or
as . . . as

 

Conjunctive Adverbs

The conjunctive adverbs such as however, moreover, nevertheless, consequently, as a result are used to create complex relationships between ideas.


Answer the following review questions about conjunctions:

 

1. What is a conjunction?

 

 

 

 

2. What are the FANBOYS? Name them.

 

 

 

 

 

3. Discuss whether or not it is appropriate to begin a sentence with and or but.

 

 

 

 

 

4. Use then correctly in a sentence of your own.

 

 

 

 

5. Use than correctly in a sentence of your own.

 

 

 

 

6. What is a coordinating conjunction? Use one in a sentence of your own.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7. What is a subordinating conjunction? Use one in a sentence of your own.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

8. Use like correctly in a sentence of your own.

 

 

 

 

9. Use as correctly in a sentence of your own.

 

 

 

 

10. Write a sentence of your own in which that is properly omitted. Indicate where it is left out.

 

 

 

 

 

11. Write a sentence of your own in which that is properly used.

 

 

 

 

 

12. Provide a grammatical example of a sentence that begins with because.

 

 

 

 

 

13. Provide an ungrammatical example of a sentence that begins with because.

 

 

 

 

 

14. What is a correlative conjunction? Use one in a sentence of your own.